The Inca was the culmination of thousands of years of development. It conquered huge parts of western south America and held onto them from 1438 to 1533. The last vestiges were conquered by the Spanish in 1572.
Much like the Romans, the Inca demanded their subjects worship the Emperor and acknowledge the primacy of their gods.
Much like the Romans they had an incredible network of roads.
But they’re also famous for one other thing:
They didn’t have the wheel.
Did the Inca Really Not Have the Wheel?
We consider the wheel a basic symbol of civilization. The idea of a great empire not having it tends to hit our brains as proof that they are inferior and primitive.
But then we found something interesting. In the late 19th century we dicscovered…Inca wheels. On toys.
The Inca absolutely did have the wheel. They just didn’t use the wheel. They would have known how to build wheeled carts.
So, why not? The answer is actually remarkably obvious.
Let’s take a quick trip a bit further north into the largest “roadless” wilderness in the contiguous United States: The High Sierras.
This is one of two passes called Mono Pass in the area around Yosemite. It forms part of an ancient indigenous (Paiute and Ahwahneechee) trade route that crossed the mountains.
This might not be what we consider a road today, but this is a road.
This road includes sections which are stepped. It has tight switchbacks. Right at the top here, above the treeline and indeed above the vegetation line, is the flattest bit!
Note the means of transportation we’re using here.
This is a pre-Columbian road on which the most efficient form of transportation is a mule.
I haven’t been to the Andes, but here…
Here’s the Andes.
With an Inca ruin.
Note that it’s even steeper than the High Sierras.
The Inca roads were a series of extremely well-maintained mountain trails. Building actual roads through these mountains? Well, let’s take a look.
Here we go. Asphalt, a car, nice flat surface. So, why did the Inca not make better roads.
There are two reasons:
- To build a road like Tioga Road, we use all kinds of equipment, which includes power tools and explosives. That is what the Inca had yet to invent. Explosives.
- They didn’t have mules. Or horses. Here’s what they did have.
Now, llamas are quite amazing beasts. But they’re also not hugely big. A full grown llama weighs between 290 and 440 pounds. The weight range for the smallest breed of horse other than minis is 400 to 450 pounds. It’s not quite accurate to say horses pick up where llamas leave off…
If it was possible to breed them bigger, the Inca would no doubt have done it.
Llamas don’t make good draft animals. Or riding animals. They do make good pack animals.
When your best means of transport is a llama combined with your own two feet, trying to build what we would now consider to be a good road is a huge waste of effort.
The short version is: The Inca knew what wheels are.
They were just no practical use to them.
But How Do You Know They Weren’t Still Primitive?
Aside from the fact that they held together a large empire that would no doubt have lasted longer if somebody hadn’t shown up with guns and smallpox, there’s a very solid piece of evidence that puts the Inca up there with the greatest road builders.
Wheels were useless in their mountain homes.
But bridges were incredibly useful, even vital.
The Inca built their bridges using materials that were on hand, which meant ropes and vines. Some of these bridges are still there today, being rebuilt every year to the same pattern.
This caused the Inca to invent something the Europeans didn’t really get their minds around until the early nineteenth century.
Namely? The suspension bridge.
(Suspension bridges were also independently invented in Tibet…for, no doubt, the same reason).
The Incas didn’t use the wheel because it wasn’t particularly useful to them.
But they were amongst the world’s greatest bridge builders…and that alone saves them from the insult of “primitive.”